How to Get Past the Beginner Musician's Plateau: The Top Down/Bottom Up Approach

How to Get Past the Beginner Musician's Plateau: The Top Down/Bottom Up Approach
joemarsonJoe Marson. (Image via joemarson.com)
The top down/bottom up method is an overall approach for indie musicians trying to get past the beginner's plateau. The title refers to making your own luck until real luck strikes.The bottom-up approach could also be known as the grassroots hustle, while the top-down approach could be called gettin' lucky. These two approaches must be done in conjunction. Some musicians I know tour for years with no growth. Others sit on their hands, just hoping that someone will hear their music and catapult them to stardom. Like most extremes in life, the middle path is usually the wisest.
Each path values a different currency:
  • Bottom-up currency: fans
  • Top-down currency: hype/fame
  • Bottom up + top down = music career (fans + money)

Bottom up: the quest for fans

A lot of musicians I run into lack perspective when it comes to getting to the next level of their careers. The biggest misconception? Talent, soul, and originality are what matter beyond anything else. Well, yes, to the audience this is absolutely true. But not to most of those people who are the gatekeepers to the bigger and better opportunities. Wanna play better shows? Make more money? Be looked at by labels? Want a manager? There needs to be a demand for you. You need fans.

Fans are your currency

Building your fanbase is the main priority of your grassroots quest. You need to make enough money to continue on, and leave all your rock star fantasies at the door. For now.
Fans are your leverage. And unfortunately, most of the time, fans matter more than your actual music and talent. Believe me, I know that's a hard pill to swallow. But you need to think about it from a business perspective. Fans equal money in the eyes of those in the music business. You are only as valuable as the amount of money you can bring in.
Here's an example in the form of a question I hear from fellow musicians all the time: "How does that band get to play Awesome Venue X on Saturday night?" Whether they're good or not doesn't matter to most clubs just trying to stay afloat. They need bands that bring in people who will either pay at the door or buy drinks. If an unknown Stevie Wonder plays to a room that's only a fourth full, the venue will lose money. It's an unfortunate reality from the artist's point of view, but it makes sense.
See, it's pretty simple. The music business runs on money. Money is brought in by fans.
How many times have you heard some dopey mofo say, "Ya know, they don't call it the music business for nothing," like he or she was expecting to blow your mind? What this person means to say is this: Money is the only thing that motivates these music business types. They might have originally gone into their jobs because they loved music, and they still might. But they can't do their jobs without making money.
In this day and age, with the record labels essentially gone, there aren't a lot of A&R people who will see your first show, decide you're the shit, sign you, pay to make your record, promote you, etc. They don't have the money to take that chance! They need a sure thing. What's more of a sure thing than just picking up a band that already has thousands of fans who are buying tickets to their shows, merch, and CDs? The keyword is "buying," folks.

Top down: connections and chances

"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." – Seneca
This is the "opportunity" side of the sentence above. Wouldn't it be awesome if all you had to do was work on your craft, become amazing, go out and play a few shows, and be discovered by a label? Back when the industry had more money, they could afford to send a lot more A&R people out to do just that.
The truth of the matter is the grassroots approach takes time and a ton of effort. I advocate the grassroots approach, but know full well that one appearance on a national television or radio show can equal years of touring. It's like hitting the lottery. But you don't have to do just one or the other. Do both. At the same time. While on your bottom-up, fan-building quest, be on the lookout.

It's all about connections

It's true. Knowing the right person who works for this magazine or that TV show can make all the difference. How much you go out your way to try to befriend these folks depends on your level of ambition and social savvy. It's called schmoozing, which I don't particularly enjoy. The people who do like it are usually much more on the business side of things. Managers are perfect for just this, but until you have one, it's up to you how much you seek out events or try cold-contacting others.

Do you agree with the top down/bottom up approach? Let us know in the comments!

Joe Marson is a Brooklyn transplant whose music resonates in the realm of alternative folk-rock, with a defiant bluesy edge. Marson delivers full-bodied, soulful ballads charged with slow thumping percussion, powerfully swelling harmonies and fervent, evocative lyricism.Catch his June 2015 West Coast tour.
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